Overarching research agendas – Ravi Prabhu shares

Meet Ravi Prabhu, the coordinator of CGIAR Regional Plan for Collective Action in Eastern and Southern Africa, Alliance of the CGIAR Centers, as he shares insights from recent efforts to build “overarching research agendas”
this and much more in the April issue of cgiarNews

Q: What does “collective action” mean for you, and why do you believe it’s important for the CGIAR?

RP: In the context of the CGIAR’s collaborative research, collective action refers to a number of Centers, though not necessary all, working together on a common agenda, one they could not adequately address individually. With respect to the Regional Plan for Collective Action in Eastern and Southern Africa, this also means collaborating with our partners in the region, especially with subregional organizations, like ASARECA (Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa). The challenges of hunger, poverty and environmental degradation are too complex and dynamic for any single Center to deal with them effectively through individual effort. Hence the need for collective action.

Q: What are some of the primary means by which you have fostered collective action?

RP: As coordinator of the CGIAR Regional Plan for Collective Action in Eastern and Southern Africa, I have sought to bring together leading researchers from all the Centers working in the region to articulate overarching research agendas for the plan’s four flagship program areas. These are integrated natural resource management, markets, agrobiodiversity and postcrisis recovery in agriculture. My approach is to engage in a dialogue with researchers who are on top of their game and have realized that further progress in these areas is likely to come only if they join hands with researchers from other Centers who have complementary skills or mandates. I’m also facilitating the emergence of “communities of practice” – that is, self-directing, action-oriented groups – focused on the four program areas.

Q: What has been your most gratifying experience in this work?

RP: The enthusiastic and unselfish support of senior researchers, who despite being extremely busy, have proved willing to engage in our four flagship areas and address the development challenges articulated by regional bodies. This is especially impressive given that the organizational frameworks and institutional incentives for such work – for example, in annual performance appraisals – are weak or missing for the most part. It has been really exciting to receive the scientists’ help in forming a strategic view of the role of research on particular topics and of its contribution to development.

Q: What has been your greatest frustration in promoting collective action?

RP: Two aspects have been frustrating. The first – and it’s almost a principle – is that collective action moves no faster than its slowest critical component. At times, the pace has been frustratingly slow. On most days, we’re fairly sure to beat a snail in a race, but I don’t think the tortoise has much to worry about! One must ask whether collective action is the appropriate response in each and every case. When I look back, though, I’m quite amazed at what the various collective action groups working on the regional plan have achieved within 2 years on a very modest budget. My second frustration is that the regional plans have lacked support from the Centers of the participating researchers. Though this picture is not homogenous, I think it’s a fair generalization.

Q: What do you consider the key requirements for the success of collective action?

The two most important are a clear understanding of what the collective action is for and a clear agreement that it is the appropriate organizational response to a given problem. On that basis, we can articulate common objectives and a common agenda, without which collective action is pointless. Other key requirements are effective facilitation (including conflict management), a commitment to keeping transaction costs as low as possible (or they will totally swamp the initiative), an awareness that collective action is a means and not an end (in other words, one must not be seduced into creating “hard” institutional frameworks to support collective action, when “soft” ones will do), trust among the participants and, lastly, effective communication and learning processes.

Q: What views have CGIAR partners expressed to you about collective action in the CGIAR?

RP: I’ve heard views ranging from very negative to very positive. It’s difficult to generalize, as opinions are always expressed in the context of a particular form of collective action. On the whole, I would say that partners don’t have a particularly positive opinion of collective action in the CGIAR. I believe, though, that this opinion is not well founded. In fact, it may be somewhat prejudicial. Of course, some partners express hope that collective action will get better in the future.

Q: In your opinion, what is the single most important untapped opportunity for strengthening collective action in the CGIAR?

RP: The urgency of the challenges we face at the beginning of the 21st century and the wide recognition of their importance. I would add to this my conviction that the majority of CGIAR (and partner) researchers are favorably disposed towards collective action, providing the transaction costs aren’t too much of a burden. It would also help if researchers received some recognition for their contributions. Perhaps, the CGIAR could do more to recognize examples of effective collective action.

Q: What recent example of collective action in the CGIAR would you single out for recognition?

RP: Last year, when the whole world was worrying about the food price crisis, colleagues from ILRI (International Livestock Research Institute) and ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) came to me and explained how eastern and central Africa is likely to be impacted in ways that differ from the global picture presented in the media. A collective action group, consisting of researchers from various Centers and partner organizations, was formed to articulate a regional perspective on the crisis. ASARECA was the logical candidate to lead the group. Its findings quickly became the basis for discussions among policy makers, multilateral organizations and others about policy responses and research strategies. This initiative bore all the hallmarks of good collective action – it was based on a broad and equal partnership involving diverse organizations, and it delivered useful outputs in a timely way. Clearly, we need more such initiatives!

Q: How have the recently proposed reforms in the CGIAR altered your expectations about the future of collective action in that and other areas?

RP: The proposed reforms seem to favor collective action quite strongly. But it’s too early to gauge their likely impact. If the reforms are what I understand them to be, then I think they should be welcomed wholeheartedly.

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